A bad development

By MARION DAVIS  |  April 22, 2009

The most telling thing about this week's report on the R.I. Economic Development Corporation may be how many people didn't want to talk about it, at least publicly. Those who did were, for the most part, quite positive: "I think it's an excellent piece of work," raved Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed said legislators feel "very strongly that this is a very important initiative," and the report "certainly makes our work . . . a lot easier."

But what did the document, which the Providence Journal called "blistering," actually say? Its basic findings were hard to dispute: Economic development in Rhode Island has been "unsatisfactory for well over a decade," government leadership has been inconsistent, and the state's approach to development has been "fragmented, disjointed and without focus." Its basic prescription was also solid: The EDC needs to be led by an "experienced, professional economic development executive," overseen by a "strong, focused" board," and guided by a "clear, coordinated and comprehensive" strategy.

Beyond that, though, things got really fuzzy, really fast — making it possible for everyone, starting with Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, to find plenty to praise but also plenty to ignore in the report, which was often vague and sometimes contradictory.

For starters, whose fault is this? The report says it would be "counterproductive" to cast blame, or to "lay all of the responsibility on the EDC," but it advises firing the entire board and taking Carcieri off as chairman.

But Carcieri resisted those suggestions and, when asked if the report was an indictment of his economic leadership— given that he's led the state, and the EDC board, for six years — he replied: "I don't take this as an indictment of me personally."

And the actual problems cited by the report are themselves open to interpretation.

Take the first major point: that the state must make economic development "an immediate and perpetual priority," and invest in it accordingly. Right now, the report says, Rhode Island's investment level is "among the lowest in the country" — and, it adds in parentheses, that "it is estimated, although we have not verified, that Rhode Island spends less than $5 per person . . . while Massachusetts spends over $7 . . . and the [US] average . . . is over $38."

That is the only place in the 17-page document where figures are actually cited, and it's without attribution or context. Most likely, the $5 is based on the EDC's budget, which is $5 million, or about $5 per state resident. But as Carcieri and the report pointed out, most of Rhode Island's economic-development dollars don't go through the EDC. "We as a state are spending a fortune," Carcieri said, noting that while the EDC's budget has been "contracting," the film and historic preservation tax credits alone cost close to $1 billion.

So is the problem that we're not investing enough in programs and infrastructure? The report doesn't really go there, though it says efforts are "not coordinated" and thus less effective, and it hails the creation of the Science and Technology Advisory Council and the revitalization of Quonset Point as some of the state's few "successes."

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